Childhood Illness and Parental Anxiety

One of the most difficult things to handle is one’s child’s illness; particularly illnesses that may have a long duration, for example, serious allergies or juvenile diabetes. No matter what medical assurances parents may receive, they frequently are concerned that, somehow, they may have contributed to, or, could contribute or aggravate their child’s condition. This is particularly evident, for example, in the case of allergies to peanuts where one mistake could result in a fatal response. It is understandable that parents experience extreme, sometimes debilitating anxiety. Clearly one of the most painful things a parent can go through is the death of a child; to have the anxiety that one may have not been careful enough, in their parental care, would be overwhelming. I am assuming, here, that parents have sought and received sound medical advice as to how to handle any illness that they are dealing with.

While all the above is true there is an added problem that some physicians may not have the time or the training to address. By that I mean the psychological factors that are present with any illness. Children are particularly sensitive to their parents’ unspoken words and unspoken feelings. An unconsciously angry parent, for example, will create an emotional tone that surrounds the household, which can haunt a child, irrespective of the parent’s overt behavior. An overly anxious parent can invade a child’s psyche in subtle ways so that the child begins to evidence behavior as if he or she is the anxious one. Such an emotional situation burdens the child with his/her parent’s anxiety in addition to their own feelings about their illness. Most frequently both child and parent are not conscious of these dynamics. Consciously everyone’s energies are spent solely addressing the objective illness, while the damage that excessive anxiety is causing is left untreated.

What is a parent to do? Obviously such a state of affairs can snowball so that a family becomes overwhelmed with an admittedly serious physical illness but also a psychological one that has “invaded” the family. In such a situation if a parent is experiencing noticeable anxiety they should seriously consider a consultation with a neutral professional trained to recognize such reactions. In such situations parents have to learn to recognize the difference between understandable yet frequently unproductive anxiety—it just contaminates everyone around them—and, adult competent concern. We entrust our bodies and our minds and emotions to professionals who exhibit competent concern, rather than overly anxious responses. Parents, in particular, have to try to imitate such an emotion situation. I am not advocating cold or dispassionate response to an ill child. Competent concern is supported by knowledge and grounded in love. Competent concern is marked by a serious attention to, but not an obsession with, an illness. It conveys seriousness and diligence without conveying debilitating inactivity or avoidance of everyday tasks. It asks of parents that they recognize that their primary job is not only to protect and secure the best medical advice available, but also to convey to their child their own progressive competence in handling their illness. Even young children can be taught this. What we are talking about is an emotional and secondarily an intellectual message.

Quite frequently a few sessions with a therapist, for those parents who find that their child’s illness is causing them notable and intrusive anxiety, can prove to be very helpful. A neutral ear enables us to hear our best selves. Anxiety is a warning signal that something serious is in danger of happening; concern, on the other hand, recognizes the seriousness of an issue and responds by fostering, developing and teaching competence. As an ill child can experience his/her own beginning competence in recognizing and addressing their condition they are no longer the passive recipient of an unwanted illness, but rather an active respondent to a life situation which can contribute to a sense of mastery. That is an invaluable lesson for anyone to learn, child or adult.


One thought on “Childhood Illness and Parental Anxiety

  1. karen harvey says:

    Thank you Dr. Gargiulo. You have once again hit the nail squarely on the head in your response to our questions regarding parental influence on childhood anxiety. This affords me a wonderful opportunity to pass this information on to the parents I come in contact with who are battling this situation. Regards, Karen

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